Democracy close to home; Why we backed Prop. 3

In May, Diem Boyd, of the LES Dwellers, gave a presentation on how the oversaturation of the nine-block area of “Hell Square” with liquor licenses was causing myriad quality-of-life problems. Neighbors living farther south near 9 Orchard St. fear their area would also be negatively impacted if a plan for multiple liquor-licensed venues in the building is approved. Villager file photo

BY LISA BLUM | In a time of fear that our democracy is slipping away, we comfort ourselves thinking that, in this corner of the country, at least, our voices will be heard. Yet all too often, New Yorkers instead face a demoralizing system that serves up a healthy dose of cynicism.

That is what dozens of Chinatown and Lower East Side residents got last month from Community Board 3. Despite overwhelming opposition to a luxury hotel’s liquor-license application for nine nightlife venues (a mix of both public and private) with a capacity of more than 800 people, the board has recommended the 9 Orchard St. Hotel’s application to the State Liquor Authority.

It was a harsh reality check for the many newcomers to the community board process who expected their voices to be heard and procedures to be transparent. The 9 Orchard project illustrates why we need more accountable, representative community boards. On Election Day, voters took a first step by voting “Yes” on ballot Proposal 3, which will impose term limits on community board members.

In October, the private-equity real estate firm DLJ Capital Partners brought an application for 9 Orchard to C.B. 3 that called for several full-liquor, late-night venues and for live music and DJs in the double-height lobby lounge. Despite heartfelt pleas from hundreds of neighbors who either attended the board meetings or signed a petition calling for more modest plans, the committee members pushed the proposal through to the State Liquor Authority.

Why would community board members ignore the very people they are appointed to represent? One reason was that a small group purporting to represent the neighborhood had cut a behind-closed-doors deal with the developers regarding stipulations, leaving the community out of the conversation. That group then went before the community board with a valuable advantage: representing them was someone who is a longtime member of C.B. 3.

In addition to the inside dealing among longtime board members, the board seemed to be tacitly accepting the developers’ ignorance of the community they hope to join. About two-thirds of residents around the hotel are Chinese-language speakers, nearly half of them first-generation immigrants. Yet in the developers’ community outreach, they did little to engage the Chinese community.

When the Orchard St. Block Association presented maps to the community board showing a Buddhist temple within 200 feet of the hotel, which would trigger a state law prohibiting liquor licenses next to places of worship, hotel representatives didn’t even appear aware of the temple’s existence. The community board’s usual procedure is to table a hotel’s application when there is a question of a 200-foot case. In this instance, for some reason, the development group went right ahead with its proposal.

Now that the developers have been notified about the temple directly across the street, if it is found to be a 200-foot case, they will do everything they can to lobby the state for an exemption to the law so that the S.L.A. can grant their liquor licenses. The community has been vocal on this point, calling on state Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou to uphold the law and require the developers to come back to the community to reach a reasonable agreement, not create a nightlife nuisance on the backs of working residents.

But it should not have come to this. The 9 Orchard case teaches us that, despite massive public opposition to a particular venue, all the nightlife industry needs is the approval of long-serving board members who aren’t accountable to the community they represent.

Meanwhile, we can’t afford lobbyists, lawyers or technical experts to make our case with community powerbrokers. And we can’t just pick up and move when the neighborhood becomes a nightlife destination — as the hotel developer suggested to one of our members.

At a time when our federal government has been hijacked, we need to bring community boards back to the community, and we need our local representatives to represent us. Voting “Yes” on Proposal 3 is just the beginning.

Blum is a member, Orchard St. Block Association

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